Economy

A European Court of Justice has ruled that Morocco’s trade agreements with the EU over the Western Sahara are invalid.

European judges have struck down two trade and fisheries agreements between the EU and Morocco, in a victory for campaigners who argued the union had not gained consent from the disputed territory of Western Sahara.

The EU’s general court on Wednesday cancelled a 2019 trade agreement and a fisheries deal that would allow Morocco to export agricultural goods to Europe from the resource-rich region of Western Sahara, over which Rabat has long claimed sovereignty.

But Western Sahara’s independence movement, known as the Polisario Front, launched a legal challenge against the deals, arguing that they should not automatically extend to the region. The Luxembourg court on Wednesday ruled in favour of the movement, deciding that EU governments had not gained sufficient consent from the people of Western Sahara when ratifying the deals.

“The steps taken by the EU authorities before the conclusion of the agreements at issue cannot be regarded as having secured the consent of the people of Western Sahara,” said the court. However it added the annulment would not come into force immediately allowing both sides to launch an appeal against the move.

Oubi Bachir, the Polisario Front’s envoy to the EU, said the court ruling was a “historic judgment” and a “victory for the Sahrawi people at the hands of European justice”. Rabat declined to comment.

The annulment is a blow to EU-Morocco relations and comes after European judges in 2018 ruled that a previous fisheries agreement could not apply to Western Sahara. The EU is Morocco’s largest trading partner, with nearly two-thirds of the country’s exports being sold in the bloc.

Josep Borrell, the EU’s top diplomat, said the bloc was committed to pursuing a stable trading relationship with Morocco despite the judgment. “We remain fully mobilised to continue co-operation between the EU and Morocco,” said Borrell in a joint declaration issued with Nasser Bourita, Morocco’s minister of foreign affairs.

The EU and Morocco agreed a pact in 2019 to amend a series of preferential tariffs for products of Moroccan origin, alongside a deal allowing EU vessels to fish in Moroccan and Western Sahara waters. Last year, the commission issued a report saying the agreement was “delivering benefits for Western Sahara and its population in terms of exports, economic activity and employment”. 

“The General Court considers the Front to be the representative of the Saharawi people who, consequently, have the capacity to take legal action before European courts to defend the sovereign rights of their people,” said Bachir.

After a 30-year ceasefire, fighting resumed last year between the Polisario Front and Morocco, following Donald Trump’s decision to recognise Rabat’s claims over Western Sahara in return for the kingdom normalising relations with Israel. Tensions have since simmered in the form of hit-and-run attacks and long-distance shelling by Polisario against Moroccan units along the sand berm that separates the two sides.

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